The Great Helmsman at 100

December 26, 1993

Few individuals have dominated their times as completely as the son of a Chinese peasant born 100 days ago today. Contemporary China of more than one billion souls is the China Mao Tse-tung made. His successors are trying to undo his damage while holding on to the legitimacy he conferred upon them.

Whether the Communists represented China's truest revolution or just another dynasty is for Sinologists to debate. For certain the small Communist Party the librarian Mao helped found in 1920 subverted the revolution of 1911, survived the Long March of 1934, withstood the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s from a cave in Yenan and triumphed in 1949.

Along the line, the simple peasant became a god and paranoid monster. The Little Red Book of excerpts from his turgid pronouncements was distributed in every language. For his whims and fancies and fears, millions had to die.

When the U.S. overran North Korea, Mao sent human waves against U.S. firepower. To collectivize agriculture, he not only seized the land from peasants but subjected them to humiliations and executions. When Nikita Khrushchev published the crimes of Josef Stalin, Mao split the Communist camp and stood for world revolution.

He tried to move China industrially in the Great Leap Forward of tiny steel furnaces in millions of yards. The steel was no good and agriculture collapsed. The reaction was the takeover of affairs by practical men. But Mao came back in the Cultural Revolution, seizing power by inflicting turmoil, sending the Red Guards against their parents. Then began the cult of The Great Helmsman, the font of all wisdom.

Mao may still be the cultural icon of China's rulers, but his death in 1976 was China's liberation. It allowed the practical men to seize the country back from his Gang of Four and begin the steady ascent that has made China the world's most rapidly growing economy with the greatest population and nuclear weapons, a superpower in the making.

Contemporary China repudiates Mao's economic ideas. But the people ruling China who unleashed the economic creativity of the people still repress their right to take charge of their own affairs. It is only as Mao's heirs that the rulers rule at all.

When China finally decides Mao was never The Great Helmsmen, his successors will be off the bridge and in the sea. But of all the babies born on Dec. 26, 1893, he remains the one with the most lasting effect on the world.

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